Just Like A Spirit In The Night

Someday if I ever made a movie of my own life,  most of the soundtrack would probably be Springsteen songs.  I associate one song or another with most of the big milestones of my life – teenage angst, love found and lost, hope, determination, grief, whatever you got.

The E Street Band is just a tad greater than the sum of a bunch of great parts; the beating heart of the Weinberg/Tallent rhythm section, Miami Steve’s raw, sloppy-yet-perfect backup vocals, the Big Man’s sax garnishing the whole thing…

…but under and around and occasionally soaring above it all was the soul of the E Street Band’s sound – Danny Federici and his Hammond B-3.

Federici passed away yesterday at age 58 from complications of skin cancer after nearly forty years of playing with Springsteen:

It was Federici, along with original E Street Band drummer Vini Lopez, who first invited Springsteen to join their band.

(“Child”, with Springsteen, Federici, Vinny “Mad Dog” Lopez and Vini Roslin)

By 1969, the self-effacing Federici — often introduced in concert by Springsteen as “Phantom Dan” — was playing with the Boss in a band called Child. Over the years, Federici joined his friend in acclaimed shore bands Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom and the Bruce Springsteen Band.

Federici became a stalwart in the E Street Band as Springsteen rocketed from the boardwalk to international stardom. Springsteen split from the E Streeters in the late ’80s, but they reunited for a hugely successful tour in 1999.

Federici and Springsteen were half of “Steel Mill”, a first-generation metal band (of all things) that predated the E Street Band by a couple of years, and whose bootlegs have been for thirty years among the most sought-after in the boot business. 

  It’s no accident that the Springsteen moments that I remember the most are, most often, the ones most keenly-accented by Federici’s raw, understated, yet always dead-on playing:

  • The figure in the chorus of “Incident on 57th Street” (The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle); it’s only three notes repeated eight times, dissolving into a high, fat wash of chords keening above the raw longing of Bruce’s vocals; “Puerto Rican Jane – oh won’t you tell me…”, but without it, it’d be just another lovelorn guy baying at the moon; Federici’s part adds and accents the tension, the hope, the passion. 
  • “Jungleland” (from Born to Run);  The huge swell as Bruce roars “From the churches to the jails, tonight all is silence in the world…” signals that this song is going downtown to rumble.
  • “Sandy”, from E Street Shuffle, featuring Danny on an unforgettable accordion part

  • The Farfisa part that propels the choruses of Born in the USA’s ”Glory Days” (and is virtually a sample of the even cooler part on “I’m a Rocker” (The River).
  • “Backstreets” (from Born to Run); Federici does two things that stand out in this song – one of my favorites, and easily the best “breakup” song of all time.  From the bridge (“Endless juke joints and Valentino drag…”) to the end, of course, Federici’s B3 howls with all the anger and longing that this angry, longing song deserves; the organ is the atmosphere.  But it’s at the beginning – the long intro Federici shared with pianist Roy Bittan – that is the most ingenious.  The organ part starts low, mournful and sad, with broad chords behind Bittan’s eighth-note riffing.  But then, when the band comes in, Federici swells up into a higher register, playing a nervous, jittery pentatonic counterpoint behind the rest of the band.  It’s so subtle you have to listen hard for it – and you usually sense it rather than hear it.  But it adds the angst-y undercurrent to the intro; while the rest of the band broadly thumps away, the organ twitches and twists in the background like all the unanswered questions behind any lousy breakup. 
  • “Jackson Cage” (The River) – Federici is the propulsion behind this, one of Bruce’s rawest sprints, almost challenging Weinberg to keep up. 

And of course, the entire album Darkness on the Edge of Town.  Dave Marsh once wrote that Born to Run belonged the Clarence Clemons and Roy Bittan – but Darkness belonged to Federici (and the low end of Weinberg’s drum kit, the toms and bass).   Marsh was right, as he usually was (when not writing about politics, anyway); Federici has almost too many great moments to catalog; the burst of howling joy in “Badlands” (especially the roaring swell in the second verse – “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king…”), the fatigue-ridden last-call motif on “Factory”, the indigo atmospherics in the title cut…

…and, perhaps best of all, “Racing In The Street”, which constantly dukes it out with “Darkness…” for the title of my favorite Bruce song.  The song is the flip side of “Born To Run” – it’s about growing up and realizing after you’ve driven your suicide machine through the mansions of glory, that party’s got a morning after – the rest of your life. 

And the final coda, after the last chorus – “tonight my baby and me are gonna ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands…” – is entirely driven by Federici; slow and mournful at the beginning, and then brightening like the sun rising in the east over The Shore, as another day begins as things pick up tempo and life starts up again.

Federici was the quietest member of the band, the one who stayed the most in the background, the one whose career was most-closely tied to the band.

 

  Unlike Nils Lofgren, he had no previous solo career; he never forged much of a second career, like Steve Van Zandt’s acting or Max Weinberg’s now-long career as a bandleader, or for that matter Gary Tallent’s as a producer; he didn’t have the force of a supersized personality like Clarence Clemons to boot doors open.  His single solo album, the jazzy and largely instrumental Flemington, was and remains obscure.  He reportedly took the E Street Band’s extended hiatus, from 1990 to 1998, the hardest; rumors among the E Street fan hive had it that he had a bit of a drinking problem; the band’s reunion and tour in ’99 was, the rumors had it, a huge boost to his life. 

Whatever.  The fact remained that whatever the rest of the E Street’s bands parts brought to the table, Federici added the atmospherics, the foreboding, the tingle of anticipation…the soul of the band.

RIP, Danny Federici.

7 thoughts on “Just Like A Spirit In The Night

  1. Thanks, Mitch. I saw the story earlier this morning and knew you’d have something posted before I could. I know what’s going to be in my CD player on the drive home tonight.

  2. ““Backstreets” (especially the roaring swell in the second verse – “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king…”)”

    You meant “Badlands” – only caught it because I spent so many hours practicing that song on my guitar.

    Nice tribute.

  3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ksDUUkaoqY

    Backstreets with an early version of Drive All Night squeezed in the middle. He performed many angry versions of Drive All Night inside of Backstreets during the Darkness tour. It doesn’t get any better.

    I’ll have to play “Wild Billy Circus Story” tonight.

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